The diminutive Manipuri Mary Kom has been India’s finest sporting icon. With a record of six women’s titles in world championships, besides a silver medal, she has only enhanced her standing as a great example of an Indian sportsperson who has excelled through her natural talent. An Indian woman boxing legend would be unimaginable despite our epics and folklore being filled with feisty goddesses. To think an Indian athlete could sustain this level of elite performance across 17 years in international competition only adds to her lustre. Her emergence from the Northeast to the centre of Indian sport makes her a Muhammad Ali-type icon, defying social, racial barriers and even gender barriers. Her dedicating her sixth medal to the nation was a charming and elegant way of thanking the people for their support.
Such talent is known to emerge in India despite the system, not because of it. It may have taken a while for us to realise that our sportspeople, who do not start competing while young enough because of the lack of sporting infrastructure, except perhaps in a few metros, need all the support that they can get. But it does appear we may have caught up in offering as the Centre and states do now in terms of substantial cash incentives for winning performances, besides subsidies for coaches, trainers and dieticians to be involved in the preparation of athletes. Despite all that, however, Mary Kom will continue to define the Indian way of sporting talent emerging naturally, that is perhaps why individuals rather than teams have tended to dominate the Indian sporting scene. The reports of discriminatory or whimsical selection of the Indian women’s XI in the World T20 Championship is indicative of the hazards Indians face in team sports where unity, harmony and collective effort count even more than talent and game skills.
The advent of prominent Indians sportswomen in the new millennium, who set very high standards in international competition, was heralded by Mary Kom. Badminton stars Saina Nehwal and P.V. Sindhu have been carrying the pennant but without quite achieving the heights Mary scaled in dominating her flyweight class (48 kg), winning the most world championship titles for a woman. Her dream of an Olympic gold medal may depend on whether she can cope with the weight classification. It is in serving as an inspirational figure that Mary Kom has contributed hugely to Indian sport. If there are promising young athletes who have taken to a contact sport demanding strength as well as suppleness, speedy reflexes as well as subtlety and sheer obduracy in working past the pain of training and the physical punishment of competition, it is all owed to the Manipuri who defied national stereotypes in picking her sport. Three young boxers who picked up medals in their maiden appearance in the world championship mark the finest tribute to Mary Kom.